June 26, 2021 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Feature Blog ||

The Stoic Perspective on Anger: Was Marcus Aurelius Wrong?

Ronald W. Pies, MD


Is anger always a bad thing?

Is anger always a “bad” thing? Are there cases and circumstances in which anger of some degree and duration can prove useful—and even represent an ethical imperative? What is the Stoic view on these issues?

The present essay was prompted by an unexpected reaction to a letter of mine that appeared in the April 17, 2021 New York Times. [1] The Times had solicited letters on the general topic of one’s personal “code of ethics”, and one of the sources I cited was Marcus Aurelius. I quoted him as follows: “There is but one thing of real value — to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger, in the midst of lying and unjust men.” This statement is derived from Book VI, Number 47 of the Meditations, and is a widely quoted as above; however, according to the literal translation directly from the Greek by C. Scott Hicks, the teaching would read, “Life’s one prize is in seeking truth and doing justice and being charitable even to those who lie and cheat.” [2, p. 74]. Nonetheless, the formulation I used adequately expresses Marcus’s basic attitude toward “anger”, as I’ll elaborate later. 

By way of personal disclosure: I was describing, in the letter, my way of coping with what I view as the selfish and irresponsible behavior of many people during the pandemic; e.g., those who refuse to wear masks in crowded public settings. Somewhat to my surprise, a number of readers found Marcus’s teaching deeply wrongheaded. Their passionate comments, which I take quite seriously, ran along the lines of, “I want to be angry over that kind of selfish behavior!” and “We have a moral obligation to be outraged at such antisocial behavior!” 

Was Marcus wrong?

So was Marcus wrong? Are his critics right? And was I wrong to embrace Marcus’s teaching? 

I think the answers are complex. Like the Rabbis of the Talmud, the Stoics were extremely disturbed by the destructive effects of anger. Given the violent and brutal times the Roman Stoics lived in—Cicero (106 BCE-43 BCE) was murdered by his political enemies, and Seneca (ca. 4 BCE-65 CE) was forced to commit suicide by the Emperor Nero—the Stoics’ antipathy toward anger is understandable, in historical context. 

Feigning anger

Indeed, in his essay “On Duties,” Cicero emphasized the antisocial aspects of anger, and sought to counteract that effect through courtesy and tact. Thus, he tells us that "...as we have a most excellent rule for every phase of life, to avoid exhibitions of passion...let there be no exhibition of anger or inordinate desire...We must also take the greatest care to show courtesy and consideration toward those with whom we converse. It may sometimes happen that there is need of administering reproof.  On such occasions, we should, perhaps, use a more emphatic tone of voice...and even assume an appearance of being angry. But we shall [never] have recourse to this sort of reproof... unless it is unavoidable and no other remedy can be discovered. We may seem angry, but anger should be far from us; for in anger, nothing right or judicious can be done." [3] 

This use of “feigned anger” is reminiscent of the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (1138-1204 CE), though I’m not aware of any evidence that Maimonides had read Cicero. Maimonides, in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah describes anger as “…an exceedingly bad passion, and one should avoid it to the last extreme.” [4] But even Maimonides acknowledges the value of occasionally simulating anger, as when one wants to discipline one’s children—so long as one does not really feel anger.[4]. 

Seneca’s denunciation of anger

Seneca seems more vehement than Cicero in his condemnation of anger.  In his classic work, On Anger [De Ira], Seneca minces no words in describing his revulsion at this emotion. He calls anger “... the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions. For the other emotions have in them some element of peace and calm, while this one is wholly violent...” [5]  

Seneca observes that, “Certain wise men... have claimed that anger is temporary madness....[and] you have only to behold the expressions of those possessed by anger to know that they are insane.” [5] Similarly, in his Letters from a Stoic, Seneca quotes Epicurus to the effect that “Anger carried to excess begets madness.” Seneca adds: “It is true...the outcome of violent anger is a mental raving, and therefore anger is to be avoided, not for the sake of moderation, but for the sake of sanity.” (Letter XVIII) [6] Furthermore, in the same letter, Seneca’s indictment continues, “... if you choose to view [anger’s] results and the harm of it, no plague has cost the human race more dearly.” [6]

Seneca does not place much value on the ability to triumph over one’s external enemies, if one is defeated by that terrible internal foe, anger. He writes, in letter LXXXVIII, “What’s the use of overcoming opponent after opponent...if you can be overcome by your temper?” [6 ] In this respect, Seneca is close in spirit to the Talmudic teaching that asks, “Who is mighty? One who conquers one’s passions....[for] one who rules over one’s spirit is better than one who conquers a city.” [7] Thus, Seneca writes, in letter LXXXVIII, “Humanity is the quality which stops one being arrogant toward one’s fellows, or being acrimonious.” [6] 

Two categories of anger

Perhaps Seneca’s chief contribution to the Stoic perspective on anger is his distinction between anger over injustices peculiar to oneself; and those that affect all human beings; e.g., “Resent a thing by all means if it represents an injustice decreed against yourself personally; but if this same constant is binding on the lowest and highest alike, then make your peace again with destiny.” (Letter XCI) [6] Indeed, in the same letter, Seneca asks us to imagine Nature addressing us as follows: “Those things you grumble about are the same for everyone. I can give no one anything easier.” 

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE)--like Cicero and Seneca--lived in a violent and turbulent age and spent much of his political career on the battlefield.  There, he must have gained a keen appreciation of the dangers of unrestrained anger, or rage. In addition to his admonition to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men, Marcus insists that, “I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids and lower rows of teeth..." (Meditations, Book Two, No. 1) [2, p.27] Like modern cognitive-behavioral therapists, Marcus was aware that we are often provoked to anger by trivial and passing irritations, which, however, may have serious adverse effects. He writes, "Our rage and lamentations do us more harm than whatever caused our anger and grief in the first place.” (Book Eleven, No. 18 [2, p. 130] 

Marcus also reflects on anger in the larger, spiritual context of the human community, and recognizes anger’s implications in the cosmic order. He writes, "Whenever you lose your temper or become upset about something, you're forgetting that everything serves the purpose of the whole; that another's wrong is not your concern; and that whatever causes you to be upset has always happened and will always happen and even now is happening everywhere. You are also forgetting that what binds humankind to one another is not blood and family ties, but the community of mind. You're forgetting too that everyone's mind is of God and flows from the same divine source...Finally, you're forgetting that everything is what your opinion makes it, and that the present moment is all you have, to live and lose." (Book Twelve, No. 26) [2, p.  142]

Stoic Views in the Context of Other Faiths

Very well, then: clearly, the Stoics did not approve of anger, and seem to allow for few exceptions. This is also largely true of the Buddhist sages, who regarded cleansing ourselves of anger as essential to Buddhist practice. Indeed, Buddhist philosophy largely denies any such thing as “righteous” or “justifiable” anger. [8] 
In partial contrast to Stoicism and Buddhism, some rabbinical sources see at least a limited role for anger—and this speaks affirmatively to the critics of my letter to the Times. The Talmud teaches us that even God gets angry “every day”, but only for “a moment”—which the text suggests is about .06 seconds! And in their book, Creating an Ethical Jewish Life, Dr. Byron L. Sherwin and Dr. Seymour Cohen argue that, “…anger is a necessary spur to survival, and anger is a necessary stimulus in confronting evil and evil people.” [9] Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin asks, “…who would want to live in a city whose police department was composed of officers who felt no anger toward the murderers, rapists and pederasts they were trying to catch?” [10, p. 258] 

Reconciling the two views

How do these rabbinical teachings square with the views of Marcus Aurelius? I think we may posit several tentative answers, on behalf of Marcus. First, it is clear that his teaching entails the need to “cultivate” justice in the midst of an unjust society. In my view, this meant, for Marcus, the active effort to counteract injustice and establish a just society. On this account, our absence of anger must be accompanied by socially and ethically responsible behavior. The “extra ingredient” of anger, from the Stoic perspective, would accomplish nothing, over and above the effects of our socially responsible actions. 

Second, I believe that when referring to being angry or losing one’s temper, Marcus had in mind either (1) uncontrolled rage; or (2) something like the chronic, seething, debilitating anger that can actually cripple constructive action.  I do not believe Marcus would have discounted entirely the value of brief, motivating anger that acts as a spur to constructive action. After all, this was an emperor battling Germanic tribes threatening his kingdom! It is hard to imagine functioning in such battleground conditions without occasional, brief bursts of anger. 

Appropriate anger

Indeed, my own view of anger, as both a student of religious faiths and as a psychiatrist, is actually summed up best by Aristotle, whose ethical framework shared important features with that of the Stoics [11] 
“Anyone can become angry…That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy.” [12]

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Dr. Diane P. Toby, PhD, for her stimulating comments and reflections on these issues. 

  1. Pies R. ‘Be Kind Whenever Possible. It Is Always Possible.’ Letters, New York Times, April 17, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/17/opinion/letters/personal-philosophy.html
  2. Hicks D, Hicks CS.  The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations. Scribner, 2002. 
  3. Cicero: “On Duties.” In: Selected Works. Translated by Michael Grant, Penguin, 1971
  4. Twersky I: A Maimonides Reader. Library of Jewish Studies. Behrman House, 1972, p. 54
  5. Selections from Seneca’s De Ira (On Anger). Introduction to Philosophy, Prof. Mark Collier, University of Minnesota http://facultypages.morris.umn.edu/~mcollier/Intro%20to%20Philosophy/Seneca.pdf
  6. Seneca: Letters from a Stoic. Translated by Robin Campbell, Penguin Books, 1969
  7. Pirke Avot 4:1; in Pies R: The Ethics of the Sages, Jason Aronson, Northvale NJ, 2000 
  8. O’Brien B, “Buddhism's Solutions for Anger.” Learn Religions. 
  9. herwin BL, Cohen S. Creating an Ethical Jewish Life. First edition, Jewish Lights, 2001, p. 252
  10. Telushkin J, A Code of Jewish Ethics, vol. 1, Bell Tower, New York, 2006. 
  11. Galuzzo G, Gill C. “Aristotelian and Stoic Happiness.”  Modern Stoicism [undated].
  12. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, 1108b. Accessed at: